The French did considerable work in the army, as well as the navy, after the disasters of the Seven Years War. One of the things they worked on was infantry tactics to find a new system that would work against the Prussians.
The work done at the Camp of Vaussieux and other places in the 1770s was crucial to the tactical improvement of the French army and greatly benefitted the Grande Armee in later years.
Marshal de Broglie, prompted by Mesnil-Durands tactical ideas on the ordre profond, began a series of tactical experiments and maneuvers to test Mesnil-Durand’s ideas against the usual French practice of l’ordre mince. The first maneuver was carried out at Metz by the Metz garrison, four battalions of infantry in 1775. The results were ‘mixed’ but it was proposed that Mesnil-Durand’s ideas were sufficiently interesting to undergo further testing and experimentation.
The next series of maneuvers were undertaken at Vaussieux in Normandy between Bayeux and Coucelles-sur-Mer after the entry in the War of the Revolution against England. There were 44 battalions of infantry, 6 dragoon regiments and a considerable artillery train. Marshal de Broglie was placed in command with the Marquis de Lambert as marechal-general des logis. Mesnil-Durand was appointed as one of his assistants. The elder de Guibert as assigned as major-general (chief of staff), with his son and the younger de Broglie as assistants.
The other senior officers assigned to the maneuvers in Normandy were Lieutenant Generals Luckner, Gribeauval, Chabot and De Vault; Marechaux de Camp Rochambeau, Conflans, Wimpfen, La Tour du Pin, and Durfurt. A total of nine lieutenant generals and eighteen marechaux de camp were assigned to the maneuvers as well as six brigadiers.
Wimpfen would write the only period account of the maneuvers, Relation de ce qui est passe au camp de Vaussieux. He and de Broglie would heatedly disagree on the outcome of the maneuvers, each with his own viewpoint on what was accomplished.
Eight different evolutions of the maneuvers were conducted between 9 September and 28 September 1778 and the bottom line was to see if Mesnil-Durand’s heavy columns were better than units in line for offensive infantry maneuvers and tactics.
September 9th-the 1st maneuver; September 11th-the 1st maneuver is repeated because of errors on 9 September; September 12th-the 2d maneuver; September 14th-the 3d maneuver; September 15th-the 4th maneuver; September 17th-the 5th maneuver; September 21st-the 6th maneuver; September 24th-the 7th maneuver; September 28th-the 8th maneuver which completed the exercise.
De Broglie supported Mesnil-Durand’s idea of the ordre profond, and Wimpfen was against it. The other general officers formed their own opinions, but the bottom line was that Mesnil-Durand’s large columns were too large and unwieldy and therefore impractical. De Broglie disagreed and believed that the maneuvers proved the viability of the large columns. That was a minority opinion.
What was proven, though, is that troops in formation supported by large number of regular infantry deployed as a fire support element in the attack did work.
While de Broglie and Wimpfen disagreed tactically, and can be considered at the extremes of the argument, two French general officers adopted a ‘middle ground’ in the argument. The Marquid de Castries commanded the Camp at Parame in 1778 and conducted maneuvers on the model of Vaussieux but he had fewer troops than de Broglie fielded. De Castries was a proponent of the ordre profond and his maneuvers were conducted the maneuvers with battalion colums, which were smaller, easy to manuever and deploy and were again supported by large numbers of skirmishers. He left a written record of the maneuvers.
The Comte de Puysegur, another supporter of the ordre profond, agreed with de Castries and endorsed the idea of battalion columns covered by skirmishers. Both de Castries and de Puysegur rejected Mesnil-Durand’s heavy columns instead preferring smaller battalion columns and this idea is what was employed once the French again went to war.
The doctrinal product of the maneuvers would eventually be the Reglement of 1791, even though other infantry reglements were produced, the culmination would be that of 1791 which was the infantry regulation that was used by the French from 1792-1815.
It should be noted that the 1791 Reglement did not mention the employment of skirmishers in large numbers to be used as the fire support element, along with battalion columns, in the attack. That would come when war came and would become part of the French tactical system.
In The Military Experience in the Age of Reason on page 279 reads:
‘Mesnil-Durand, Joly de Maizeroy and Saxe were among the authorities who called for a closer working of regular and skirmishing tactics.’
So, even though Mesnil-Durand’s heavy columns were judged a failure, the idea of coordinating regular troops in formation with regular troops deployed as skirmishers in large numbers was being thought of at least as early as Marshal de Saxe and would come to fruition when the French army went to war in 1792.
Duhesme was a keen advocate of light infantry, while Rothenberg is voicing an opinion that is now 40 years out of date. The others are arguing about how to counter the French advances. All this is as inevitable as some authors trying to find some “special ingredient” to explain defeats - we might for example compare it with the reaction to the rapid defeat of the French army, which was considered the world’s best in 1940.
These quotes you trot out are interesting in themselves, although context is everything, but just as I told you Jemappes was a reversion to Meusnil-Durand when the assault columns failed ( see my article in First Empire based on Krieg 1792 and Lynn) and indeed Lynn notes there is basically nothing on their next defeat at Neerwinden in 1793, perhaps you can tell us where these light tactics won’t a battle. Where the French troops are well-trained, they could perform the assault columns of the 1791 regs and with greater numbers, it becomes easier to throw out clouds of skirmishes to shield them, but aside from 1805-7, French victories were the result greater numbers, a more effective intelligence effort and columns used as battering rams - well, okay one was won with fresh troops and a bit of luck while the last columns failed.
These things are rather more complex than a focus on one wonder tactic, whatever the likes of Rothenberg might think, but do tell of a battle where these tactics were decisive.
The French Tactical System
From The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France 1791-1794 by John Lynn:
‘The analysis most forcefully presented by [Duhesme] claimed that in 1793 French troops lacked the ability to fight in any close order formation. They simply dispersed into disorganized bands of light infantry skirmishers, or tirailleurs.’-241.
‘It is in this genre of combat (that of skirmishers), that the French genius shines with the greatest brilliance.-Duhesme, 261.
‘The French army had only light infantry.’-Duhesme, 265.
‘The allies had sometimes concluded that the French armies were very much stronger than allied forces in free corps and light troops; this was not literally true. But since the infantry of the Republic were all armed in just about the same manner, they were all employed equally as tirailleurs and in the line, in so far as circumstances seemed to require.’-an émigré commenting on the Armee du Nord, 265.
From Napoleon’s Great Adversary: Archduke Charles and the Austrian Army, 1792-1814 by Gunther Rothenberg:
‘Trained in the rigid techniques of eighteenth-century warfare, the army would be repeatedly mauled by the more aggressive and elastic forces of the French Revolution and Napoleon. There was nothing wrong with the Austrian rank and file, but their commanders were thinking in terms fast becoming obsolete.’-38.
‘At the same time, despite occasional efforts to promote an effective combination of light and linear tactics, the predominance of close order fighting remained undiminished. While a noted Austrian military historian has claimed that ‘by 1798 the Austrian army had learned how to fight in open order supported by closed formations,’ this contention is not supported by the evidence.’-70.
‘Rigidly controlled and regimented, the Austrian skirmishers rarely were equal to the French.’-145
From The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805:
‘Probably never before has a greater number of light troops appeared on the battlefield than among the ranks of the present French army, nor has military history ever been given more irrefutable examples of the value of such troops than during this war.’-Scharnhorst, 59.
‘If the campaigns are studied, the Republic certainly owes most of her victories to her light infantry.’-Scharnhorst, 59.
‘The physical ability and high intelligence of the common man enables the French tirailleurs to profit from all advantages offered by the terrain and the general situation, while the phlegmatic Germans, Bohemians, and Dutch form on open ground and do nothing but what their officer orders them to do.’-Scharnhorst, 62.
‘…Scharnhorst understood that without changes in organization and administration, tactics and strategy, discipline and training, Prussia could never counter the French threat.’-64.
‘But for most Prussian officers, ‘skirmishing was politically suspect and militarily unnecessary.’-78.
From The British Light Infantry Arm c. 1790-1815 by David Gates:
‘The French, since the Revolution, have so successfully introduced such a new military system, that it becomes impossible to oppose them effectually, by any other mode than adopting one founded on similar principles. They send a number of riflemen in front of their line to annoy their adversary, and conceal behind them the different movements of their columns: nothing can be effected against this disposition, but by opposing light troops to light troops.’-Baron Gross, 1801-35.
‘The action would be opened by a cloud of sharpshooters…who were sent forward to carry out a general rather than a minutely-regulated mission; the proceed to harass the enemy, escaping from his superior numbers by their mobility, from the effect of his artillery by their dispersal. They were constantly relieved to ensure that the fire did not slacken, and they also received considerable reinforcements to increase their overall effect. It was rare for any army to have placed its flanks in impregnable positions; in any case every position presents natural loopholes which favor an attacker. Against such points the sharpshooters would concentrate their efforts, and elan and inspiration were not often lacking at such times among such troops. Once the chink in the foe’s armor had been revealed, it became the focal point of the main effort. The horse artillery would gallop up and open fire from close range with canister. Meanwhile, the attacking force would be moved up in the indicated direction, the infantry advancing in column…’-General Maximilian Foy, 33-34.
‘In the woods where the soldier breaks ranks and has no movements to carry out, but only to fire under cover of the trees, they are not only equal but superior to us; out men, accustomed to fighting shoulder to shoulder in the open field, found it difficult to adopt that seeming disorder which was yet necessary if they were not to be targets of the enemy.’-a Prussian officer, 32.
It looks like these tactics were not that effective as they were counteracted very quickly as the noted French light tactician Duhesme wrote:
” In spring 1794, as already said, the Austrians opened the campaign in the north with the siege of Landrecies, they put up measures, which were suitable to weaken and to exhaust the French élan, which had been so disastrous for them in the past. They concentrated the observation army around that place, put into fortifications, placed big reserves and advanced the advance guards as far as possible. These well commanded advance guards did contest the terrain only as long as possible to inflict losses in time and tirailleurs. By that they drew us from one position to the other till to those they really intended to defend. Then they let us disperse our last battalions and let us exhaust ourselves, whose fire was broken by their fortified lines. Fresh troops emerged in most splendid order from them, placed themselves tirailleurs into our flanks, and attacked as such with big advantage our disordered and exhausted soldiers and disarrayed units of whose majority couldn't even rally around their colours. Fortunate for those divisions, where a cautious general had retained a reserve which was able to cover the retreat and to prevent a rout."
As Archduke Charles wrote in 1796: “All this skirmishing decides nothing”. Given that the French already turned to Meusnil-Durand at Jemappes in 1792 after the assault columns failed and would do so again, notably at Wagram and Waterloo, it seems that it was much less a case of tactical effectiveness and more a case of numbers and some need by later authors to find French special tactics.